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Results either side of the June international window has breathed new life into the Super Rugby finals race, as assumptions and guesstimates from not that long ago suddenly look more than a bit shaky.
The Australian and South African conferences now have just one win – or less – separating the top two teams.
Teams previously thought well out of the race are well and truly back in it, and teams assumed to be on track for a finals appearance now have a bit of work to do.
As it stands right now (and assuming my maths is right), only two teams will definitely make the finals: the Crusaders can’t finish any lower than fourth overall and will have a home final in week one of the playoffs one way or the other.
The Hurricanes also can’t finish any lower than eighth overall.
Nine other teams can finish in the remaining six playoff positions, and with anywhere between second and eighth overall still very much in play with two rounds to play. So much for the top eight looking settled.
Crusaders – currently 1st overall + 1st in NZ: 54 points, 12 wins
To come: Highlanders and Blues; both at home in Christchurch.
One win in their remaining two games will probably be enough for the 2017 champion Crusaders to claim top spot overall, giving them all the home ground advantages possible for a back-to-back title defence.
It would be tempting to write the Highlanders off after their showing in Suva on Saturday, but we all know the South Island derbies have a habit of ignoring form. Still, I can’t see the Crusaders dropping both remaining games that would see them surrendering a well-earned minor premiership.
Lions – currently 2nd overall + 1st in RSA: 41 points, 8 wins
To come: A bye this weekend, followed by the Bulls at home in Johannesburg.
Where once the Lions looked certain of a home final not that long ago, suddenly they’re on very, very shaky ground. They can still claim the South African conference, and a couple of Waratahs losses in addition would allow them to hold onto second. But other results conspiring against them could see them drop out of the eight altogether.
At least their equation is simple, as far as the conference goes: with no points possible this weekend, they simply must beat the Bulls in Round 19, and hope the Jaguares don’t win their remaining games and overtake them.
The Lions have a big bonus point advantage over the Jaguares, but the Argentineans will go ahead with a better win record should they finish equal on points.
On that point, a reminder of the Super Rugby tie-breaking process: Should teams finish equal on points, the most wins are the first step; then points differential; then most tries scored, and then the differential between tries scored and tries conceded. If the teams are still locked together after all that, it literally comes down to a coin toss.
Waratahs – currently 3rd overall + 1st in AUS: 39 points, 8 wins
To come: homes games in Sydney against the Sunwolves and Brumbies.
If the ‘Tahs edge close to securing the Australian conference this weekend coming, those two Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley intercepts in Melbourne on Friday night will only take on more significance.
Having beaten the Rebels, and the Lions losing to the Sharks, two wins from their remaining games will be enough for the Waratahs to secure second spot and home ground advantage for the finals. Take no points out of either remaining games, however, and other results could see them miss the finals completely.
In short, get there, ‘Tahs fans. Your team needs you in numbers.
Hurricanes – currently 4th overall + 2nd in NZ: 45 points, 10 wins
To come: Blues at home in Wellington this weekend, then the Chiefs in Hamilton.
They will play finals in 2018, but it really feels like the ‘Canes have lost form in three successive losses. The loss to the Brumbies leaves them within arm’s reach of both the Chiefs and Highlanders, meaning a home final still needs to be earned.
But they can still top the NZ conference and finish first overall if the Crusaders lose both remaining games, so that should be motivation enough. Lose both games themselves, though, and other results could drop them as low as eighth.
Chiefs– currently 5th overall + 3rd in NZ: 41 points, 9 wins
To come: Brumbies and Hurricanes, both at home in Hamilton.
They were super impressive in Suva, the Chiefs, and now they have a bit more control of their destiny. Win both remaining games, and they can claim a home final; lose both, and the freefall could be fatal for 2018.
Their final match against the Hurricanes could well decide who finishes as the top wildcard.
Highlanders – currently 6th overall + 4th in NZ: 40 points, 9 wins
To come: the Crusaders in Christchurch, followed by the Rebels at home in Dunedin.
They weren’t so impressive in Suva, the Highlanders. But at least the loss hasn’t hurt them too much; like the Chiefs two wins and other results could lift them into the top wildcard place, but equally, they could also miss the top eight entirely with no further competition points and teams below them winning everything.
Jaguares – currently 7th overall + 2nd in RSA: 38 points, 9 wins
To come: one last mini-tour – the Bulls in Pretoria and the Sharks in Durban.
They didn’t just run in the bottom half of the competition for the first half of the season, they ran in the bottom three. But by Round 11, they were in a wildcard spot and now, less than a win behind the Lions, they can take the South African conference lead with a win over the Bulls at Loftus this weekend. What a ride it’s been.
Though two losses and other results could bundle them out of the playoffs completely, topping the conference and being able to play a final in Buenos Aires could make them that much harder to beat again.
Rebels – currently 8th overall + 2nd in AUS: 35 points, 7 wins
To come: away games against the Reds in Brisbane, and the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Well, they lost a game they really should have won on Friday night, but the Rebels remain in the top eight currently, and with a three-point gap over the Sharks behind them. Though their equation isn’t quite as easy as the Jaguares, the Rebels can also top the conference if they start winning and the Waratahs start dropping games (though the ‘Tahs do have one more win currently).
Lose even just one game, however, and they run the risk of being overtaken by the Sharks.
Sharks – currently 9th overall + 3rd in RSA: 32 points, 6 wins
To come: the Stormers in Cape Town, and the Jaguares at home in Durban.
Just have to win both games, first and foremost. Two wins, some bonus points, and other results could see them finish as high as fifth, but in reality, it’s the Jaguares and Rebels firmly in their sights. They were really impressive closing down the Lions, but the Sharks have also been really hot and cold this season.
It’s entirely up to them.
Brumbies – currently 10th overall + 3rd in AU: 29 points, 6 wins
To come: Chiefs in Hamilton, then the return leg of the Hume Highway derby against the Waratahs in Sydney.
I’d put the line through the Brumbies back in Part 1 of The Run Home, you might recall, but suddenly, somehow, they’re back in with a chance, albeit a faint one at that. It’s knockout rugby for the Brumbies now. Keep winning and they might play finals if teams above them lose everything; lose, and they’re done.
Bulls – currently 11th overall + 4th in RSA: 25 points, 5 wins
To come: Jaguares at home in Pretoria, followed by the Lions down the highway in Johannesburg.
It’s purely mathematical for the Bulls. They need the Rebels and Sharks to lose both games, the Brumbies to drop out of the race, and then need to make up a differential gap (currently 43 points) to the Rebels, just so that they could take the final wildcard on a count-back.
Good luck with that…
Stormers – currently 12th overall + 5th in RSA: 25 points, 5 wins
To come: Sharks at home in Cape Town, then a Round 19 bye.
Can’t happen. The loss to the Jaguares means the final round bye kills off any chance of even just drawing level with the eighth-placed Rebels. They’re done for 2018.
The top eight could easily be decided this weekend, but at the very least you would expect the field to be thinned somewhat. But, given the results we saw in Round 17 on the weekend, we should probably be expecting the unexpected.
It’s not great for tips, but it is creating a really interesting finish to the season.